Quick Spin: Chef Adam Higgs of Portland’s Acadia

 

Acadia, Portland, Oregon

 

I arrived in this weird Pacific Northwest city back in the early 2000s, settling into a house in Portland’s then-undesirable Northeast neighborhood. I remember being pretty dismayed with the food options in the area, venturing out one night, determined to find a great restaurant nearby. Thankfully, I stumbled upon a dimly lit corner spot on Fremont Avenue, where the menu at Acadia pulled me in, full of seafood and Cajun spices, and I stayed for both dinner and dessert. Impressed by the food, I was lulled by the easy jazz winding its way through the dining room, pleased with the service and staff.

Over the years, I’ve made my way back many times, mainly for the spectacular barbeque shrimp dish that demands a loaf of crispy bread to soak up the heavy, spicy broth. I’ve watched as more restaurants and shops have sprouted around the neighborhood, plenty of food and drink options for the masses who have migrated to the now up-and-coming area. And yet, Acadia remains. Cozy, comfortable, consistent – a local favorite for those in need of a little Southern hospitality and a whole lot of gumbo.

Adam Higgs is, of course, a major part of Acadia’s success. Initially both chef and co-owner, Higgs bought out original owner Bud Deslatte in 2003, taking the reins on his own in early 2004.

A decade in business, a lifetime in restaurant years.

Q: So where did it begin for you?

A: Well, I’ve been in Portland since 2000. I moved here from Omaha, Nebraska. I grew up in Nebraska, and before that, lived in rural Missouri. We moved to Omaha when I was in high school, and I started working for a restaurant in Omaha called V.Mertz, which was in a cool Old Town location, with brick and stone streets.

I was the chef’s apprentice, which meant dishwasher. [Laugh.] But I did get to do some cooking. It had at one time been an upscale grocer owned by an old French woman. She had moved with her husband, and they had brought a lot of foods with them from France. She opened this grocery in the 70s built in the alleyway between two brick buildings. It was a great space, and I was excited to work there. Every week it was a whole new menu, handwritten by the manager. That was just the way it was. Really fine dining, huge wine list. I got to work with a number of great chefs, and worked with all kinds of ingredients – foie gras, lamb, seafood that was flown in. A lot of game meats, tons of various kinds of cheese. It was really a great way to grow up within this industry. We weren’t looking up things on the internet or our phones back then. If you wanted to learn how to cook something, you had to dig through old cookbooks to find a recipe. I spent seven years there, and when I left, I was the head chef.

I left to work at the Embassy Suites that was opening up, and then moved to the kitchen of a Southwest restaurant that was opening up, which was fun because I had a passion for that kind of food. I got to work with a bunch of little Spanish ladies, work with chiles and things like that. I had really good experiences at both places.

I decided to move out here with my then girlfriend and her brother, who was headed here for culinary school. I had been to Seattle, and didn’t really like the vibe, and I knew Portland would be cheaper than San Francisco. I started as the sous chef at L’Auberge. Quickly became the head chef there.

Eventually, we decided we wanted to move to New Orleans, so we started looking. I found a posting for a New Orleans chef, and sent my resume off, and it turned out to be a gentleman who was looking for a partner-chef for a restaurant here in Portland. It was just opening up. He had a lot of old timey recipes, and I learned them quickly. After some time in the kitchen, Bud, the owner, decided he wanted to move out of Portland, and I bought him out. January 2004 was my first month as full owner.

Q: What do you think really keeps this restaurant going?

A: It’s definitely a lot of hard work. I’ve learned quite a bit about owning a restaurant since then. As far as customers and keeping people happy – you know, you go through a lot of phases in a restaurant. We were able to weather the economic downturn. At the time, we had plans for another restaurant, and it was moving pretty quickly, and as the recession hit, we decided to hold off on the expansion and it turned out to be the right decision. We would not have been able to sustain two restaurants at that time. It was, Nobody’s coming in. But nobody was coming in anywhere. It was really, Well, maybe I’ll just be the one working today. I’ll make the menu a little smaller and just muscle through.

You know, we’ve always had a lot of product from Louisiana and I think that really speaks to return customers, people from the South who are looking for an “authentic” meal. Well, as authentic as you can get not actually being in New Orleans. I think it’s easy if you surround yourself with real ingredients from that area that you’re trying to recreate, you’re going to get more authentic flavors. So most of the seafood comes from the Gulf, though we get local oysters now. All of our shrimp is U.S. wild caught. The head-on shrimp is flown in from New Orleans. The catfish filets are wild caught. Crawfish tails, softshell blue crab, blue crab meat. We try to get as much of our seafood as possible from the South. It really makes a difference. Those head-on shrimp – you can’t really buy those anywhere else. The barbeque shrimp, which is a favorite, I only make with the head-on shrimp because there are a lot of delicious head juices, and fats. It’s head fat that really melts into the sauce and adds that umami kick.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the ingredients, maybe it’s the willpower of the owner. Being here for so long, you get to know the economic side of it, you get to know what exactly needs to be done and when.

Q: Are you still thinking about expanding?

A: There’s been a lot of talk about that. I’ve always wanted to grow. I don’t think it would be another Acadia. I’m just really very cautious. I’ve seen a lot of openings that haven’t worked out. Partnerships just haven’t been right, maybe the vision hasn’t been right. It just hasn’t come to fruition.

Q: And how’s 2014 treating you so far?

A: I love this time of year. You’re just coming out of the holidays. I feel like this is our busy time of the year, for sure. There’s Mardi Gras. It’s cold outside and we have warm food to offer. It’s good in the summer, too, of course. You know, I always tell people that they’re still eating gumbo in New Orleans in the summer, so they should stop by here, too.

We’re in Portland Dining Month with a four-course dinner as well. A lot of seafood. I could’ve gone the chicken route, but if you’ve got people coming in, you want them to really see what you offer. You’re getting a lot of new customers, and this is the perfect time. I wanted to really show what we’re all about.

 

~Jennifer Heigl

*Photo credit: Chris Ryan